Last week, I wrote here about depression and suicide, apropos of the death of Robin Williams. In the week since, I’ve thought a lot about the media coverage of his death, and how impressive and non-sensationalist most (albeit not all) of it has been. Well, the tone changed yesterday afternoon, when Henry fucking Rollins waded in with a column for the LA Weekly entitled “Fuck Suicide.” In it, Rollins addressed the death of Robin Williams with his usual sledgehammer subtlety — leading with an acknowledgement that “I am sure some will strongly disagree with what I’m about to say,” and wheeling out pretty much every manifestation of the “suicide is weak/selfish/etc” trope one can imagine.
If you boil it down, Rollins’ argument is this: I don’t understand suicide, and thus I condemn it. Go on, apply this to literally any other form or manifestation of mental illness and you’ll see how offensive and ridiculous it is. I just don’t understand depression, so come on, get out of bed and do something! I just don’t understand schizophrenia, so stop it with those psychotic episodes already! I just don’t understand panic attacks — you’re totally safe! Get out and live your life!
It’s nonsense. It’s stupid, lazy thinking. And when you’re dealing with something that kills some 40,000 people a year in the US, it’s downright fucking irresponsible. Suicide doesn’t care if you understand it. To review what I wrote last week, if you’ve never felt suicidal, then be grateful, because when you are suicidal, ending your life seems like the most perfectly rational thing to do. You’ve got it all worked out. Everyone would be better off without you, and you won’t have to feel this way any more. You may or may not want to die, but what’s terrifying about suicidal ideation is that it doesn’t seem like a drastic step. Suicidal ideation is by its very nature irrational — it involves being convinced that the only solution to your situation is to end your existence.
If Rollins were actually interested in understanding instead of grandstanding, he could start here, where writer Jesse Bering summarizes a fascinating paper by Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeinster, which deals with the way a suicidal mind works, or doesn’t work. There’s too much material to summarize here, although I highly recommend the whole thing — but the key point is that the mind of a suicidal person is quantifiably different from that of someone who isn’t in a suicidal state. The suicidal mind is, as Bering puts it, “distinct and scarily inaccessible… from that of our everyday cognition.”
The other thing is that a suicidal mind is fragile. Suicides may or may not be planned, but they’re carried out in a moment’s decision, a decision that could go either way. And if someone is feeling suicidal, the very last thing they need is to hear some dickhead like Henry Rollins telling them that they’re weak, and that they should just man up, and that they’re worthy of “distain [sic]” for even thinking about ending their own lives. They need to be spoken to, not harangued. They need help, not condemnation. They need people to be sympathetic, not judgmental. They need support, not ostracism. They don’t need to be lectured about the value of life. Believe me, they know.
A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that a guy I’d been pretty tight with in high school had killed himself. He left behind a wife and a two-year-old son. And you know what? I don’t understand it either. Like Henry Rollins, I don’t know what would cause you to leave behind a family. But the first thought that occurred to me was, god, the poor guy must have been in excruciating emotional torment to end his life in such circumstances. I feel terrible for his wife and son. I feel terrible for him. Was he selfish? Who the fuck am I to judge? Perhaps it’s that because I’ve been there, I can at least sympathize. But you shouldn’t need to have experienced suicidal feelings to have compassion for those who do.
So, Henry Rollins, you’re right about one thing: you don’t understand. At all. It’s not a matter of “hanging in there… for all the people who walked from the grocery store back to their house, only to be met by a robber who shot them in the head for nothing.” It’s not a matter of life being what you make it. If only it were that easy. As you so generously acknowledge, you’re not a doctor. You’re an attention-seeking blowhard holding forth in an inflammatory, offensive manner on a subject you don’t understand, because you can’t understand it. (And, incidentally, also: fuck you, LA Weekly, for publishing this.) You should be ashamed.